Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘Russ

Chapter 4: Pollution of Agency

Russ spends much of this chapter demonstrating that even though it’s no longer scandalous for women to be writers or actresses, women writing about certain aspects of their lives is still considered immodest and renders the author unfit and unloveable in the eyes of popular culture.

photo of actor Quvenzhané Wallis

How sweet is Quvenzhané Wallis in this (and every) picture?

Sadly, I think the mores of the past are not nearly as diluted as all that.  Actresses may no longer be considered “used goods” but sometimes it seems only barely.  As I was reading this chapter my mind kept going back to the appalling behavior of this year’s Oscar host.  Not just when McFarlane called then nine year old Quvenzhané Wallis a gendered, sexual slur on national television.  Not to mention the myriad of other gendered and sexualized insults aimed at the women that were supposedly there to be honored.  But also how important it was to the punchline in his “We Saw Your Boobs” song and dance that the actresses mentioned felt ashamed for having done the job they were paid to do.  To the point that, rather than leaving it to chance, they filmed staged reaction shots showing the actors mentioned hiding their faces and looking shocked and embarrassed.  This wasn’t just a silly song about boobs, it was above all a song about how it’s shameful to be a woman who has let the public see her breasts.

photo of actor Charlize Theron

Charlize Theron wants to know how anyone finds McFarlane funny.

Let’s also not pretend that this scorn of women performing sexuality is something only raving sexist pigs do.

This morning my timeline was all a-twitter over Ms. Magazine’s Spring 2013 cover story about Beyonce, her feminist viewpoints, and her work as a performer.  Most of the women of color that I follow were rightly pointing out that Mainstream (= White) feminists and feminist organizations are a lot quicker to question the feminist credentials of performers of color, while at the same time defending white feminist creators (such as Lena Durham), even when their version of feminism is clearly problematic.

photo of Beyonce

Beyonce doesn’t have time for all this bullshit.

I wonder too if there’s not something to the fact that Beyonce’s public persona, unlike Madonna’s or Lady Gaga’s, is perceived to be Diva rather than Avante-Garde.  There’s echos of the porn wars here, with Lady Gaga being given a pass where Beyonce is not because the latter is perceived as showing off her body only because it makes her money, while the former is assumed to be showing skin in order to make an artistic statement.

photo of Madonna

Madonna wants to remind all of us that we live in a Material World.

An assumption that is also racist.  First for ascribing loftier goals to the white performer.  But also in they way that this viewpoint assumes that black women’s experiences with the Beauty Myth are (or should be?) the same as white women’s, when that’s clearly not true.  Beyonce being beautiful, talented, and sexy during the Super Bowl half time show means something very different culturally than a white female performer doing the same.  Any discussion of her feminism that doesn’t take that into account is going to fail by definition.

In conclusion, knock it the hell off Ms. Magazine; I suspect Russ would be very disappointed in you today.

Chapter 3: Denial of Agency

It’s perhaps too early to say for certain, as I have eight chapters left, but I do think the best quote of the book is:


I want that embroidered on a pillow or something.As a someone who earned a degree in physics at an all women’s college, I am quite aware of the tradition of men getting credit for work that women have done.  (Women’s studies was an extra part of just about every class I took, including physics lectures.)  Instead, what I found most fascinating about this chapter was the phenomena that Russ describes as “it wrote itself” and “the man inside her wrote it.”  This is idea that, suddenly, when it comes to women’s creative work, art is the spontaneous product of time and culture, and individual effort has little to do with it.  Even worse is the idea that a woman’s “masculine side” is responsible for her intellectual achievements.

It’s an attitude that assumes there is nothing men can’t do, that there is little that women can do, and consequently sets men’s work up as the bar that women must strive for.Thus the reason for the quote above, which was written by a friend of Russ’s upon receiving a note from a fan telling her that Heinlein couldn’t have done a better job writing the story she published.

Bullshit. “HEINLEIN COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT AT ALL.”  Men’s work alone is not the pinnacle of human achievement.  Women do not need to be like men or as good as men to be create great art.  Talented men cannot do everything any and all talented women can do.  To argue otherwise is to deny that women have value and agency.

Chapter 2 – Bad Faith

Back when I worked at the bookstore, one of my tasks – one of the tasks of every employee – was to greet every patron.  Depending on how busy we were, this could meant that an individual customer might be greeted several times – often only seconds apart – as they made their way through the store.  They reacted to this with varying degrees of politeness and annoyance.  One lovely day I even had a patron blow up at me and accuse me of…well, I can’t remember her specific words anymore, but she clearly thought the employees as a whole were only pestering so that she would leave.

I, of course, was startled, offended, and annoyed in turn at her.  Why would we want customers to leave? Do people not know that we are told to do this?  That we can get fired if we don’t?  Does she really think she is so special that we only treat her this way?

Mostly though, I was upset because she was right and I didn’t have a solution that would let me not be an asshole and also allow me to keep on my boss’s good side.

Once I had done my own venting at home, I realized this.  That it didn’t matter what my intentions had been, and that – having deliberately employed the very same tactic on visitors that we suspected might be up to no good – I could see why she might think that us constantly asking her if she needed help was a sign that we were keeping an eye on her.  An experience that, being black, she probably had to deal with much more often than I ever had.  And, unlike me, not one that she could avoid merely by switching to carrying a purse rather than a backpack.

Intent is something that is brought up a lot in discussions about harassment, sexist writing, bigoted jokes, and well – just about anything really.  It’s often said that intent doesn’t matter.  I don’t think this is true, I think intent can help determine who is capable of change and inform the arguments used.  What intent does not do, however, is trump the harm being done or mean that the person having done harm should be shielded from the consequences of what they did.Intent is not the end of an argument.  It rarely even belongs in the argument to begin with.

“…talk of sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynistic  or bigot and vague , half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good-hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalized sexism and racism makes all too easy.”

While short, Russ’s second chapter is nevertheless essential for defining the boundaries of the arguments of the book as a whole.  She is not assuming bad faith, nor is she discounting the possibility.  What she is doing is disagreeing with those that would accuse her of bad faith, of assuming that she means that every harm is done deliberately – either because they willfully ignore unintended hurts themselves or because it makes her an easier target…or both.

(originally published at

Chapter 1: Prohibitions (continued)

Before I move onto chapters 2 and 3 of How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which are both read and waiting to be talked about, I wanted to say one more thing about time constraints and creative work – more specifically this time about gender.

I have noticed that a great many of the female writers I know often feel a need to justify their existence. The space they take up, the resources they use, and most especialy the free time they enjoy. (Or, sometimes, don’t enjoy because they don’t feel entitled to it.)

This is not always a bad thing, depending on the person, situation, etc. For example, I think most middle class Americans like myself could do with a bit more perspective with regards to the resources we use, and that’s just to start. It is also tempting at times to mess around on the internet and call it research. Instead of getting off of the internet and actually, you know, writing. Discipline is not to be sneered at, after of a sculpture of a woman thinking

Yet, creative work often requires a certain amount of down time. Time spent reading or walking or watching TV or showering. Time spent thinking – or not thinking – in order to work through mental problems and come at things with energy and a new perspective. Time spent experimenting also – trying new things, both in art and life. So this feeling that one has not earned leisure time can also be very destructive, creatively. It can encourage doubt and stifle the play that goes hand in hand with the hard work of making art.

There is also that same slipperly slope that I talked about previously, the idea that if one cannot even afford the time to read, one has not earned the right to be heard. I imagine this dynamic changes a bit for writers that get paid for their work, but I can’t help but think that it still feeds into other self doubts, such as the idea that one is not worthy of more pay or praise than one already gets – and possibly not even that.

Even then it might not be worth noting, except that it does seem to be mostly female writers that I hear making these kinds of comments. To be fair, this may simply have to do with who is on my feed and chat lists, and the nature of our relationships. Also, the last thing I want to do is set up more expectations or judgements, or presume to know what’s best for other people, or dissmiss frustrations. Still, somehow I doubt George R. R. Martin ever felt the need to justify his leisure time quite as often as the female writers I know do. And I can promise you all that I value your words much more than his.

So, from one artist to another (whether your art be beading, knitting, fanfiction, poetry, Hugo winning novels or anything else) do me a favor and remember the importance of leisure time next the time you feel guilty for spending some time to rest or play.

(originally published at:

Chapter 1: Prohibitions

(In which I meander quite a bit and talk a lot about libraries.)

Now that school is out, I have time to read books that are not teen novels.  Books like: How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ.

Reading a Book by Ernst RudolphIn the first chapter Russ immediately tackles the false idea that hurdles must be codified into law in order to matter.  In fact, the prohibitions Russ focuses on first are economics and time, not even yet the cultural memes that women should not be spending their time on silly frivolities such as novel writing or painting.  In many ways I found this point, the one about women (and other non-dominant groups) having less leisure time in which to be creative, to be the more important one.  Perhaps because I was already familiar with the subtle and even overt ways in which women are pressured not to create art.  Perhaps because recent events – both in my own life and on a national and world-wide scale – have me thinking more about the right to leisure time.

Leisure time and affording the time to be creative are not the same thing, but they are inexorably linked.  It is not just that if one cannot afford the time to read one is less likely to be able to afford the time to write.  I think even more fundamental is the oft unspoken idea that if one cannot afford the time to read, one has not earned the right to be heard.

I am not nearly as nationalistic as I was several decades ago, but one thing I do still firmly believe that is that a democracy’s strength depends upon how many of its (different kind of) citizens participate in the process.  Not just voting, but in policy, debate, and even the creation of the culture that citizens are immersed in.  I am deeply worried about the trend I see, in my own country especially, that views the technology that is needed to access mainstream culture as being nothing more than a luxury.  Even putting aside for a moment the antiquated, classist, and ignorant idea that access to a computer and mobile phone are not necessary for such fundamental needs as finding work, the attitudes towards technology and class that many of my fellow Americans display is both appalling and frightening.

photo of baby with cell phoneThis is not just about the fact that easy access to technology means an increased ability to be aware of current events, and the digital divide means that many citizens are cut off from the mainstream conversation (and mainstream conversation is even less aware of their needs and opinions).  This is also about story and art, and how there is no real concrete division between works that “improve” readers and those that do not.  One of the things you learn in library school is how modern public libraries were not a response to the impossibility of everyone owning all the books ever, but rather about radically improving on the already existing and popular subscription libraries – both commercial, which were open to anyone who could pay, and private, which required one be approved for membership.  Public libraries are fundamentally democratic in history and nature not because they are about access to information, but because they are about equalizing access.  Furthermore, they are not just about facts and opinions, but literature and leisure time as well.  In asserting the right to read, public libraries end up defending not only privacy but also the idea that people of all classes and groups have the right to decide for themselves how their free time is best spent.  It is not difficult to see how chipping away at that right ends up implying that such people should not have the right to make other choices for themselves as well.

Angry Birds logoBy claiming that citizens have a right to access to paper books but not ereaders, novels but not movies, craft books but not pinterest, or even To Kill A Mockingbird but not Angry Birds, what the majority middle class culture is doing is denying both the art found in new, modern mediums and rejecting the long held belief that equalizing access to culture is a democratic necessity.  Budget decisions must always be made, of course, but public libraries have always struggled to balance the popular, archival, and informational needs and wants of their communities.  The difference now is that it is becoming increasingly unpopular to support the idea of the library as a place to go to obtain access to popular culture.

It is undeniably true that the internet is shaking public libraries up quite a bit, but we often miscast this as being the only trend rather than simply being the most visible symptom of a larger one.  It doesn’t help, after all, that for nearly half a century it was logistically, economically, and politically impossible for public libraries to provide access to mainstream culture in the form of television, thus habituating entire generations to the idea that libraries are about books and not stories and news.  Neither is it useful that so few people understand the historical parallels between the subscription lending libraries of old and their modern day Netflix and Hulu accounts.  Or even, really, their ability to purchase access to the internet.

If the rise of the internet, the increased use of google and wikipedia, and even shrinking government budgets were libraries’ only concerns they would still be in much better shape than they are now.  If changing technology were our only problem we would simply be reinventing ourselves to fit the new mediums and types of information storage.  Instead, we are constantly fighting for our right to exist, and usually losing the battle because even we often fail to realize that our main enemy is not technology but the idea that access to culture is a luxury and not a right.  In order to win this war we need to not only fight for ourselves, but for all the rights of the people we serve.  We need to highlight not only our job search workshops, but also our classes on Facebook and Tumblr.  We need to argue that access to technology is important not just in order to help people improve their short-term, personal economics – but to fulfill the original purpose of public libraries: to improve and strengthen democracy by encouraging participation in culture via providing more equal access to of Trinity College Library

It is tempting to focus on the resume classes and pretend that we also aren’t about people playing games in the internet.  After all, the latter sounds like a waste of taxpayer dollars – the kiss of death for any government service nowadays.  But pretending that leisure time is not also what we are about will mean losing the war in the long term.  It isn’t just that it will be harder to pull voter’s heartstrings when the economy picks up (assuming it ever will), the bigger flaw in this plan is we are accepting the argument that less wealthy do not deserve leisure or culture.  From there, as Russ has made clear, it is just a short step away to arguing that their voices are not worthy of being heard.  And what is a public library without the idea that citizens have a right to both read and write?

(originally posted at:

About a year ago now, I purchased and began reading Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

cover image for How To Suppress Women's WritingThis was prompted by a couple of related events.  The first was simply that a lot of people seemed to be talking about her (at least, the people in my online circle of friends and interesting people), likely in part because of her death the year before that.  The second was the response to Liz Bourke’s post at about women in military science fiction.  More specifically, one particular man’s response to it, his success in monopolizing the comments, and how that led to the entire conversation being shut down.  Which, because people were already talking about Russ anyway, got me thinking about the ways in which women (and others) are so often talked over and dismissed.  How to Suppress Women’s Writing called to me, promising advice for how to identify and deal with this problem – or at least provide witty singers for me to quote.

The plan was to read it and keep track of my thoughts as I did so.  This being me, I got as far as the second chapter.  Not because it’s a boring or incomprehensible book – quite the opposite! – but because I had trouble finding the time to write down my impressions.

But now! I am determined to start again.  Determined! I say.  So, I am re-beginning with this introduction.  Shortly to follow will be reposts of what I put on livejournal a year ago concerning the first two chapters.  And then, finally, posts on the other nine chapters!